Penn State and the Lost Idea of Personal Responsibility

Yesterday, I gave a lecture on Personal and Corporate Responsibility for the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement (I’ll link to the audio when it becomes available). The thrust of my lecture dealt with the idea of corporate responsibility in the business world and an attempt to redefine something that has become a mantra for environmental concerns. My attempt at redefining corporate responsibility brought the focus back to society as a whole and not just a niche. At the end, I attempted to tie corporate responsibility to personal responsibility by showing that all aspects of corporate responsibility are an extension of personal responsibility. In that lecture, I noted the tragic circumstances at Penn State University as an example corporate responsibility failing because no one was willing to take personal responsibility along the way. In light of what has continued to transpire at that university, I want to offer a slightly re-worked version of my lecture from yesterday applied to this particular situation.

Relying heavily on an article by Robert P. George, we can see three pillars of a healthy society: 1) respect for individual human beings and their dignity, 2) the institution of the family, and 3) a fair and effective system of law and government. Aside from the alleged crime, I want to look at the response by the university as a study in corporate vs. personal responsibility in light of these three pillars.

The university (and the individuals involved) lacked a respect for the dignity of the victims. There seemed to have been a concern for the personal interests of the perpetrator and those with knowledge of the crime, but there was no concern for the dignity of the boys. As each person up the chain of command refused to take personal responsibility for alerting the authorities, they diminished the opportunity for the university to take corporate responsibility. As we see now, the university is attempting to correct this stance, but only now that they have been caught in a cover-up. The reputation of the institution is being discredited, and the individuals involved are losing their jobs. The message the university sent to the public is that they had more concern for the university’s reputation than the dignity of the victims.

The institution of the family is essential to a healthy society. George calls it “the original and best department of health, education, and welfare.” Jennifer Roback Morse states, “There is no substitute for the family in helping self-centered infants develop into cooperative adults.” The problem at Penn State is that the university saw its own “family” interests as more important than protecting the institution of the family. These boys have been assaulted, abused, and scarred for life. Their family structure has been permanently altered because they have been subjected to a version of sexuality that is distorted far outside God’s design. There was absolutely no respect for the institution of the family on the perpetrator’s part, and there was indifference to the institution of the family on the part of the university.

Finally, a fair and effective system of law and government is crucial to a healthy society. In this case, that system was in place to handle the problem, but no one alerted the proper authorities. Now that the police and judicial system are aware of the crimes, they are working swiftly to bring about justice. However, such justice could have been enacted years ago had those with knowledge of the crime taken personal responsibility to report what they had seen and heard.

What is next for Penn State? Obviously, the leadership is in a state of flux considering that four top officials have been fired including the president and the legendary football coach who has been the face of the institution for decades. One can only guess that the NCAA will step in and place sanctions on the football program—perhaps even the dreaded “death penalty” (suspending all football for at least two years).

With the tragedy at Penn State, we see that all three pillars of a healthy society were ignored or dismissed. Penn State University may very well look back at this week as the moment the university changed. I hope and pray it will be a change that involves acknowledging that football is just a sport, all people are worthy of respect and dignity (not just those who win football games), and that the government in its purest function is here for protection from evil and to establish order in society. Unfortunately, little will change unless we recognize that personal responsibility comes first.

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Robert P. George, “Making Business Moral,” First Things 186 (October 2008): 17–19.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Love & Economics (San Marcos: Ruth Institute Books, 2008).

For more information about the scandal at Penn State University, see Mark Viera, “Paterno Is Finished at Penn State, and President Is Out,” The New York Times, November 9, 2011.

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